Sunday 29 September 2019

Puzzles can be Big or Small, Metal or Plastic...

Either way, I struggle!

Tree Box by Diniar Namdarian
Just realised that I too the photo with the tree rotated anticlockwise! Doh!
Quite a few months ago I bought a whole bunch of 3D printed sequential movement puzzles from the Master of that genre, Diniar Namdarian. I reviewed the Mazeburr-L here a little while after purchasing it and was very pleased to see it win a Jury Honourable mention prize in the 2019 IPP design competition. Amongst the other puzzles was an interesting box which Diniar describes as a sequential movement/sliding piece puzzle mixed with box and take apart puzzle and jigsaw. Who can possibly resist that? Certainly not me!

When it arrived, I was a little startled at the's big at about 20cm square 5cm deep. There is a nice Bonzai tree printed in relief on the top. After a few days of playing with other toys, I started exploring. Initially, there seems to be no way anything can slide or move. After thinking© for a few seconds, I tried the obvious and I was then able to slide other pieces around. Unlike the classic 15 puzzle, this has pieces that are not single units in length which severely limits the movements that can be made. Despite this, there are 2 or 3 possible sequences that can be started with and I rapidly started to worry that I might be totally lost. I resorted to my usual to and fro movements to try and keep track...this helped only for a bit! Despite extensive exploring, I was struggling to find any way to remove any more pieces or find another mechanism to open the box. The standard tongue and groove method of holding pieces in place was causing a few problems. After several days of playing in the evenings, I had a lovely little Aha! moment and rapidly followed it by a couple more. I had a nice pile of pieces and an open box.

That was fun!
At this point, I went back to the messages from Diniar about the puzzle and realised that the main challenge of it was to reassemble it and refashion the Bonzai tree. No kidding! I had absolutely no clue at all of the order that I had removed the pieces and only a very vague recollection of which pieces were removed from a specific position. The essence of it is that the puzzle no longer looks like a tree when you dismantle pieces so that even if you can put the pieces in then there is no guarantee (it's actually highly unlikely) that you can move them back to the start position.

This stayed as a pile of pieces in the box for nearly 2 months! Once or twice a week I went back to it and tried again. In the end, I had to position the pieces on a flat surface in the start position and move them around until I found the first exit pieces again. At this point, I was able to memorise the piece positions at which they come out and work backwards. It took ages and I very much doubt I could have worked it out any other way. Very clever and rather pretty - well worth a place in a puzzler's collection.

Having solved a large plastic puzzle, I decided to move on to a couple of very small ones:

I've imaginatively named it Yoshi Katani Small puzzle 1
and Yoshi Katani Small puzzle 2
At the last MPP, I admired in Allard's collection, a couple of little acrylic boxes full of tiny pieces all packed in cleverly. Allard, the monster that he is, saw my interest and instead of letting me idly explore from the solved packed puzzle, he upended it and told me to have fun. Swine! I set to playing with the Yoshi Katani small puzzle 1 and in the 15 minutes or so that my attention span lasted, I got nowhere close to putting it back. I glanced briefly at the other one (helpfully named number 2 because Allard cannot remember the proper names), and he immediately tipped the contents out before I could even look at how many pieces there were, let alone the arrangement! He then said that they were duplicates and that I could have them - Thanks, mate! Do you fancy putting them back in their boxes so that I can explore them gently? That will be a no then! I dutifully came home with my pile of (un)happiness cubes in pieces and these 2 little packing puzzles.

This week, I have had some time off work. To my mind, it was to allow me some puzzling time and relaxation but unfortunately "she who has a cat 'o nine tails tongue" had other ideas! DIY was the order of the week! I have successfully rewired some sockets, replaced my house wall thermostat (with only one teeny electric shock which only hurt a small bit - honest) and then replaced a door handle and tubular mortice latch with one that actually allows the doors to open - where does all that nasty black stuff come from? And thank heavens I remembered to put some newspaper down to catch it rather than getting it on the carpet!

In the odd few minutes of spare time, I had a fiddle with something small! These things are only 4x4x3cm and very fiddly. They are very nicely made from coloured and clear acrylic. As with all packing puzzles, I began with trial and error of random assortments of pieces. You all know that seldom works and I was forced to use my feeble electrocuted brain! The puzzle number 1 (whatever it may be really called) is actually a very nice logical puzzle which even I was able to solve by examination of the pieces and a little thought. It went together very nicely:

Yay! Very logical!
Mrs S dropped it during her tidying up and I had to solve it again - interestingly it still took me about 10 minutes! Small puzzle number 2 looks even more logical but so far after quite a few hours of play, it has completely beaten me! I have a pile of little pieces in the kitchen which the cats periodically move around (but don't solve) and which Mrs S is getting pissed off with. I will need to keep at it but all the obvious things which the offset holes have made me try have not come to fruition.

Another lovely puzzle that I tried this week and actually managed to complete was the Hanayama Cast Slider (reviewed beautifully by the PuzzleMad foreign correspondent, Mike). I very much agree with all of his thoughts.

Cast Slider - very mobile but very hooked together

There are some extreme movements possible and as you do them you get a full view of every part of the puzzle. During the exploration, a couple of ideas will immediately appear in your brain to try and if you do them right in the correct direction then there is a nice logical (again) solution. Perfect for beginners and experienced puzzlers! This can be bought from Nic Picot in the UK or in North America is available from PuzzleMaster.

For once a puzzle only took me an evening to solve!
Go buy one, its a nice pocket puzzle with which to entice others into our habit/addiction!

Finally, as always when one is on leave one catches a cold and feels miserable! I looked so awful that Mrs S had pity on me yesterday and allowed me to create a quick video showing off how to go about Aaron's Chinese soft rings. I don't really like solution videos much - I prefer videos that just give a clue to push start a puzzler towards the solution. The video below is for people who are truly stuck. Try to watch as little as you need before it gives away more than you want.

Now it's time to tiptoe back towards small puzzle number 2 before she notices that I am idle! Shhh!

Sunday 22 September 2019

I Needed Some Zen Puzzling!

Quadrupled Quadlooplet
Life at PuzzleMad HQ has been pretty stressful the last few weeks! There has been some hard (and occasionally quite sad and harrowing) work at the hospital which has kept my mind from any decent concentration when at home. Plus some general life and health stuff at home has also led to a general inability to work on any puzzles. What I needed was to regain my Zen focus. I don't mean that I should go and read my friend Ken Irvine's blog (which I do religiously)...I needed to do something requiring focus and a certain degree of repetitive movement to help achieve me achieve an inner balance again. I decided it was time for a bit of a focus on N-ary puzzles again!

The first one that I began to work on was from my Azerbaijani friend, Namick Salakhov. Last year (2018) he had 2 entries in the IPP puzzle design competition and I had already bought and solved the amazingly complex Loopy Lattice puzzle and had asked for a copy of his other entry that year. These puzzles are terribly difficult to make and hence the wait can be prolonged. It arrived a month ago - I was surprised by the enormous beauty of it. Called the Quadrupled Quadlooplet puzzle, there are 2 challenges:
  1. Start with the looped rope threaded through adjacent holes of the core plate. Release the rope, and then return it to the starting position.
  2. Start with the looped rope threaded through opposite holes of the core plate. Release the rope, and then return it to the starting position.
If you get stuck or tangled then Namick has included a quick-release link within the string loop which I am ashamed to say that I did use a couple of times. It looks absolutely horrendous but luckily for me, it is quite intuitive and a positive pleasure to work out and I quickly achieved my required trance-like state of puzzle-solving! Very therapeutic.

Phew! That was fun. 
The disassembly was fun but did not lead to a full understanding as I discovered when trying to put it back together. I think that Zachary understood it before me - at least he realised that chewing on the string was very satisfying and had I not snatched it away quickly may have lead to an unsolvable puzzle and kebab shits!

He's studying hard!
After 4 or 5 days of experimentation I think I had the puzzle understood and could move back and forth between end states:

String through two opposite holes.
As usual, Namick has designed something captivating and confusing at the same time but definitely solvable with just a little concentration and help from a cat. His workmanship in this very unique material is wonderful and I look forward to the opportunity to obtain more in the future. 

So far my fevered mind has achieved a very small boost from my first N-ary puzzle. I was still far from soothed and not yet able to concentrate on some of the very complex new puzzles I have received over the last few weeks and months (most of the TICs remain unsolved)! I still needed more relaxation. Next N-ary puzzle to be played with was the White Bow Tie made from 3D printed plastic by Aleksandr Leontev:

White Bow Tie
This version is the smaller version of a puzzle (Black Bow Tie) that I spied in Allard's possession at the recent MPP. This lovely object is a rotational version of the Kugellager. The large one was determined by Goetz to be a 9-ary Kugellager requiring 13,122 moves for disassembly. The one I had bought was a dual puzzle - a ternary and a quinary Kugellager requiring 170 and 1251 moves respectively. I was not sure how it had been made as both possibilities and so I set to find out. There is a lovely sequence of moves to be discovered and of course, it had been supplied to me in the quinary assembly. The interesting feature of the quinary puzzle is how the logical sequence that is apparent at the beginning changes over to another sequence partway through and does it again at least another 2 times. This became quite confusing and caused me to get lost on several occasions putting my move count considerably above the proposed 1251. I discovered that this is not a puzzle to work on when one is sleepy as the zen aspect leads to automatic movements and dozing off and then getting inadvertently backtracked whilst dazed. Having woken back up, I discovered my mistake and continued in the correct direction until I had my 5 pieces and could see how the ternary version could be possible:

Even more brain soothing done here!
A game of 2 halves - the Ternary version is flipped
The ternary assembly is achieved by flipping the ring and assembling from the opposite direction - very ingenious. My savage brow was soothed even more by the 170 moves in the opposite direction! I really couldn't face all 1251 moves in reverse!

Next up was a puzzle that I had initially thought was a disentanglement puzzle but it turns out is actually also N-ary, the Chinese Soft Ring! I can never resist buying any of Aaron Wang's amazing wire and string puzzles even if I struggle to solve many of them - they are all beautifully made and a pleasure to play with. I have one of Aaron's puzzles with me pretty much at all times.

Chinese Soft Ring produced by Aaron Wang
The puzzle is supplied as above with a 3 loop assembly on 2 end rings - needless to say - the string does NOT fit through the little gaps in the rings. There are also 2 more rings and 4 more loops and a sheet of paper with a number of challenges. At the IPP design competition, it was supplied in the 3 loop version.

I am rather ashamed to say that this took me several weeks to understand even vaguely understand how this worked. I honestly thought that it was a simple disentanglement puzzle and set about trying to undo the provided version. I got absolutely nowhere. After a couple of weeks, Michel van Ipenburg shamed me by describing that he had solved it fairly easily and I joined a couple of other people who had failed. In the end, this appears to be a binary puzzle (according to Goetz) and at this point, I had an idea. Maybe I should keep the triple assembled as a reference and try and make a simple one or two with the other loops? It required a little thought© but I managed something easy in an evening of TV (I was supposed to be watching the TV series "Chernobyl" but it was so frightening that I was pleased to be looking elsewhere).

Easy peasy!
OK! I might be understanding
I think I am getting there.
I had quite a bit of help from my own string expert and managed to get up to 6 loops:

Zachary is very good with string!
I said on Facebook that I was thinking of stopping there as it had been quite difficult to get to that point in terms of concentration and dexterity. Unfortunately, the puzzle-solving machine that is Louis Coolen took offence at me being a wimp and taunted me with a photo of his own success. Zachary looked me in the eye and told me in no uncertain terms that we were GOING to do this! The following evening I set to and after only a couple of knots and having to backtrack, I had my Chinese soft ring seven loop set:

Man! That is a really unusual puzzle and very enjoyable to work out!
I even achieved a zen state during it once I had understood what was required.
If you like disentanglement puzzles and are interested in N-ary puzzles then you really cannot beat this as both types in one. Multiple challenges make it even more value for money. I still need to work on the further challenges at some point but I sort of got sidetracked yet again...

Vertical by Aleksandr Leontev
I had been putting this one off for a while because of the sheer number of moves required. However, my mental turmoil demanded yet more soothing repetitive motion. The Vertical puzzle is based on Goh Pit Khiam's Num Lock puzzle but set in a cylindrical frame to be compact. The original was Ternary and I think that this version is too. I discussed a beautiful multiple base version of this made by my Woodmaster friend in South Africa, Johan Heyns but I could not resist a new version. This puzzle is supposed to require 14,999 moves to dismantle.

Tongue poking out!
I started work one evening trying to find the sequence. After about 20 minutes of experimentation, I was on my way and gradually settled into a wonderful rhythmic sequence of moves which I could do whilst watching the TV or otherwise sitting with a blank head! Mrs S did comment on several occasions that my expression during the solve of this puzzle was rather like that of my puzzling guru, Zebedee. We both often sit there with our tongues hanging out having no brain power left over to be able to retract it into our mouths!

At times I was able to solve this one at about 1-2 moves per second but had to rest periodically because my tongue was drying out the most moved piece was actually causing me to develop a callus on my finger which was really quite painful. The puzzle was a mammoth effort spread over 4 evenings. Finally, this morning, I had this just in time for this blog post!

OMG! The effort!
Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to the reassembly! My zen state will need to be re-instated to put it back to the beginning! Lord help me!

I do hope that all this zen-puzzling has helped my fevered mind recover a bit so that I can begin to solve some other puzzles soon - only time will tell.

If you are intrigued by the idea of a lovely N-ary wooden and acrylic puzzle then Johan has one left of his Septenary cubes which require a pleasant 4802 moves to open. If you would like to buy it then let me know and I will put you in touch with him. Don't wait too long!

Septenary cube - last one available

Sunday 15 September 2019

A New Kid on the Block...

Makes His Premiere Puzzle

Premiere from Terry Smart
I have known Terry Smart for quite a few years now. He appeared in the various Facebook puzzle groups around 2013 (as far as I can recall) and seemed to be as good at buying puzzles as I was and just about as bad at solving them! My excuse is that I am not very bright but his excuse was that he spends a huge amount of time off-shore on oil rigs and and doesn't have access to all his enormous collection for very long. He also freely admits that he is more of a collector/hoarder than a solver. So, not only does he have less time at home than me, but he also doesn't necessarily aim to solve everything.

I remember in 2013 he and I began to develop a little bit of an interest in understanding Burrtools more so that maybe we could use it to design puzzles of interest. I managed to make a couple of designs but really had no idea what I was doing and gave up after a month or so. Terry, on the other hand, kept at it and produced quite a few nice designs and interestingly gave them all wonderful Greek and Latin names...he's obviously much better educated than me too! As far as I know, none of them have been manufactured for the puzzling community to enjoy as yet.

It was with great interest that I watched in the last 12 months as Terry became very interested in starting to manufacture puzzles. Unlike many puzzlers, he chose to try the woodwork route rather than 3D printing which kept me watching with fascination as this is exactly what I want to do on the off-chance that I am ever going to be able to retire from the NHS (at the moment my retirement age is supposed to be 67 which fills me with horror as it is soooo far away). Over the last year we have been chatting intermittently on FB messenger and I have seen him spend ENORMOUS amounts on beautiful equipment from the US and then add a huge customs ransom on top. I was staggered at the amount of spending on something that might go nowhere! In private, he showed me a picture of the design he had produced which I thought was rather advanced for a beginner - the frame was incredibly complex - it would need to be glued to perfection and the tolerances would have to be perfect to get a working puzzle. The trouble with puzzle making is that every tiny error in alignment can be magnified further along a stick until you end up with a non-functioning puzzle once all the tiny errors have been added up.

Just a week ago, he showed off a completed puzzle which looked looked like it had been created by one of the established "masters". A bunch of us expressed interest and Terry wanted a quick assessment by someone with knowledge, experience and puzzle skills. Unfortunately he could only find me and I quickly agreed to evaluate his first produced design which is fittingly called Premiere. I couldn't resist it - it is one of my favourite types of puzzle - a 6 piece burr in a frame! He had attempted to make 4 but, after one broke and the others failed to work, he was left with just the one working copy and during the week it arrived chez moi whilst I was out at work.

So, how is it? I can hear you all screaming at the internet (those voices again!). The puzzle looks lovely - the burr sticks are Maple and the frame is made from Jatoba aka Brazilian Cherry. It has been waxed and lacquered and feels beautifully smooth. The burr sticks have had their external ends all chamfered nicely and amazingly the endgrain all matches perfectly (Terry admits this was more luck than anything else). In the frame, all the glued joints are perfectly aligned and no join can be felt. For a first attempt (or for any attempt) this is BLOODY AMAZING!

What about the solve process? This sort of puzzle is one of my favourites for a is never too high a level and the process always tends to be fun without being too arduous. In places a few of the moves are a little tight but no real force is required and this is no more than I would find happens with puzzles from Alfons or from Pelikan. There are a number of moves possible and a few blind ends. I got to a point where it looked like a stick or two could be removed but the frame got in the way and I was unable to find another move further along that track. A few rewinds to the beginning revealed that one stick was a little awkward to click into place (possibly due to the very sharp/perfect internal edges catching) and I worried that this was the reason that I was unable to progress. Back and forth I went, peering inside the puzzle to see why the move I wanted to make wasn't happening. In the end, I saw that the move wasn't happening because it was impossible and the wrong move entirely! As I have said...not very bright! Now what? Think©!

I thunked and realised that there was another delightful set of moves to try which I had not noticed the first few (10 or so) times. After this, I had a breakthrough and a piece came out followed by a few more. At no point did it collapse in a heap which was very satisfying. I had a lovely set of pieces for a photo:

Even signed and dated like those by Alfons or Eric
Reassembly was just as much fun. I had some recollection of how it had come apart but had scrambled the pieces and lost my orientation on the frame. Nevertheless, I was able to reassemble the puzzle in just a ½ hour. Wonderful! The puzzle is not quite perfect but is 99.99% there - maybe a tiny adjustment of the interior tolerances or an internal chamfer?

So what is my verdict for this "new kid on the block" or "new kid on the burr"?

AMAZING design! AMAZING craftsmanship!

Even though he is a friend, I would say that he is someone to watch. His skills will continue to evolve and I am sure that his puzzles will be very collectible. He already designs some fabulous puzzles but if he can make them too then we might have another Alfons or Stephan on our hands. Just look at the detail on these pieces:

Terry is planning on making another 10-20 of the Premiere puzzle available within the next month or two and I advise that you should all consider getting hold of a copy! I will be watching out for future designs being produced.

An assembly puzzle that I am supposed to solve logically?

Logical progression
Eric Fuller has been at it again! He has produced lots of womnderful loveliness to tempt me. Unfortunately, I have spent all my pocket money over the last few months and only had a little bit of change left over. A difficult decision was required and I made it quickly - I had been facsinated by the Logical progression puzzle that had sold out before I got a chance to buy a few months ago. Eric had gotten permission from the designer, Rick Eason, to make another batch. I had missed out (even in just an hour) on the Walnut version but luckily there were (and still are) a few copies of the Maple version left - I snapped it up and it arrived yesterday.

I'd seen it at the MPP and shied away from disassembling it and failing yet again to assemble something in front of all the guys. At home, I just went for it and now wish that I hadn't:

What on earth have I done?
This is supposed to be logical? Lord help me! The cats were very interested in all the protruding dowels and, in an attempt to prevent a lot of chewing occuring, I quickly reassembled it. Something tells me this isn't right:

Less to chew on!
I'll let you know how I get on...IF I get on.

Sunday 8 September 2019

It MUST Be a Box if...

1. It has bread in it and...
2. I cannot solve it without help!

Juno's Slammed Car
Junichi Yananose is an evil genius! He produces wonderful beautiful prize-winning puzzles and absolutely adores winding me up! There had been a rumour of a sequential discovery puzzle from Juno for quite a while and I was given advance warning at least 2 months ahead by Yukari so that I could save up and the moment the notification email went out from Juno and Yukari's Pluredro store , I immediately shot to the website and in the middle of anaesthetising for a rather long boring operation, I surveilled, I thought, I hesitated at the not inconsiderable price and I came to the conclusion:
Who am I kidding? Of course you need this in your collection! Juno has never ever sold a dud yet!
Duly ordered before the op was over, I waited a week for it to arrive and then after paying Her Majesty's hostage ransom, I finally had this wonderful wooden sculpture in my hands.

The detail is fabulous!
Obviously a fair bit of CNC work here.
I set to straight away with the cat on my lap and immediately made a nice discovery...which led to another discovery and another and another. This was great! Both me and the furry boy on my lap were fascinated at all the pieces. So much so that I had to tuck them under my thigh to stop him running off with them. Like most cars, there is a bonnet to open (that's a hood to you Yanks) and a boot to open eventually as well (that would be trunk!) There are also things to be done that you really shouldn't do to a real car (unless you like expensive bills from the garage) then, of course, when you open the inside of the car there are all sorts of interesting things inside...

They fell out 'guv'! Honest! I didn't break your car!
So, in an evening, I had first a detached wing mirror, a bonnet, a number (license) plate, a spanner (wrench), another wing mirror and a battery... This car is going nowhere fast! Here I got stuck for the rest of the evening.

The following evening, I had one of those "Danlock moments". This is the decision where you want to do something but you really are not sure whether doing it is a good idea, or whether it might get you into real trouble! It is always embarrassing emailing a puzzle craftsman to tell him that you have lost something inside his puzzle and can you send it back for him to extract it? After a few minutes of contemplation, thinking© and failing to find an alternative, I did the necessary move and it did nothing but it wasn't stuck inside thank goodness! What if I... BINGO!

I was into the next stage and I had a few more pieces and some very interesting places to use several of those pieces. Here I got stuck...for weeks and weeks and weeks! On FaceBook I saw with dismay that many of my puzzle friends were finishing their puzzles and were delighted with what they found. I kept at it and found something interesting but it didn't help me.

This puzzle has lots of holes and small parts and even my blind puzzling friend, Ed, solved his! Aaaargh! Why could I not do it? I had thought it was a sequential discovery puzzle and I am supposed to be just better than rubbish at those. Apparently, I was wrong...the other puzzlers were all revealing a cavity and inside a bloody loaf of bread (not one covered in blood!) which showed exactly why I couldn't solve it! I CAN'T solve boxes for the life of me! I got a hint from another FB friend, Jay which showed me another feature of the new area but helped not one bit in progressing. Then Ed suggested I start to multitask (those of you who have solved it will know what this means) and I tried that for a while. Now, I am a proper bloke! Not covered in tattoos, I have a rubbish brain that cannot do more than one thing at a time - I struggle to walk and breathe at the same time so this final phase of solving was going to be tough.

I tried for another week and was laughed at by several guys for failing! I'm used to that as it happens to me all the time at the MPP. I was asked to think why something that might be unnecessary might be present and I could not come up with an answer that first. But the more I looked at it, the more something occurred to me and I tried something new...
The gleeful shout earned me an evil glare from "she who was getting pissed off at me whining about being rubbish" and "she who had started asking me why I buy stuff I cannot do". Suddenly I had the full realisation that:
  1. It's a box (the loaf of bread is proof)
  2. I am completely rubbish.
  3. The puzzle is 100% brilliant!
Juno, you ARE an evil genius! The torture was both horrific and wonderful at the same time. I am not into S&M in any way but I loved the torture here!

We have a cavity and a rather stale loaf of bread!
I can see why Juno won the Jury Grand Prize for the Slammed car at the IPP. It is amazing! I am slightly horrified that a whole bunch of puzzlers were able to solve it at the IPP in just a few hours but they are all much better puzzlers than me.

At last, I can move onto some new puzzles that might have arrived recently - hopefully, Mrs S will allow me to live long enough to try.

I cannot wait for more puzzles (of all types) from Juno! This is one of the reasons that I keep buying, playing and writing! I love it! This is not available any longer. All 120 copies sold out quite fast so you will need to wait for one to come up in an auction - it is well worth buying when it does.

Friday 6 September 2019

An apology

Dear Puzzlers who made a purchase based on my recommendation. I have been informed of an error in the construction of Petit Pack from the New Pelikan Workshop. I know that I should have picked this up when I solved it too easily and had to choose some constraints to make it tougher. I let Jakub know as soon as I found out and he has released a statement with a plan to put it right.

Jakub and Jaroslav have said the following:

Hi Everybody!
As I've learned today, Petit Pack has a mistake. We'll have to make new boxes - we are working on it. 
The New boxes will be placed on our website and customers will be able to order either with a new order or they'll be delivered free of charge. A new update will be coming in 2 weeks. 
Sorry again! 
Jakub and the Pelikan team.

I also apologise as I should probably have picked this up.

Sunday 1 September 2019

A Tale of Two Puzzles

Damn! He's always in such gorgeous places whilst I am in dreary England!
As always, Mike Desilets is my saviour! The PuzzleMad foreign correspondent drops me a line with a wonderful article just as I need one. I have actually solved a few puzzles recently and do mean to write about them soon but work keeps me busy, Mrs S keeps me doing DIY and after a trip to Birmingham yesterday for the 39th MPP, I cannot spend too much time today on the 'puter without risking the wrath of Khan Mrs S! Mike has a review of a puzzle that I have not managed to get hold of yet as well as one that I previously discussed. I'll hand you over to his capable hands/keyboard now - take it away, my friend:

Talofa puzzlers,

This foreign office edition comes to you direct from beautiful American Samoa (Ed - sigh!). Before we get started, a general announcement: if there is anyone on Tutuila reading this and wants to get together to talk puzzles, find me at Sadie’s until Sept 8th. I brought some toys, of course, and a modest puzzle party is therefore possible. (Ed - do let me know if anyone joins you?)

Now for the content. As it happens, yet again, this is not the article I originally intending to submit to PuzzleMad. I had something else brewing (and nearly complete) but was waylaid by some intractable math issues (Ed - it should be Maths for Mathematics). That put me off my mark and the original article now seems to be growing long legs. In the meantime, my experience with Hanayama’s pair of newly released Vesa Timonen-designed puzzles compelled me to write this alternative post. These puzzles are, of course, Cast UFO and Cast Slider. Although they have not been on the market very long, avid puzzlers among the readership likely have hands-on experience with them already. Perhaps you have solved them, or perhaps you’ve just done due diligence research in anticipation of the inevitable purchase (Ed Mrs S is not happy with this plan at the moment!). If you are at all serious about this pastime, then you certainly need to have both these puzzles. If, on the other hand, you are just testing the waters, then the words below may possibly help you along your path.

A word of caution. This article contains minor spoilage on UFO. I think, however, that it only repeats spoilage previously committed in Kevin’s original post on the topic. I, therefore, consider myself absolved and refer all negative commentators to my charming and indulgent editor (Ed - I'll back you up!). If you want to enjoy untainted puzzling, as I always do, then I suggest you stop here for now and come back at the appropriate time.

Part of the reason I thought this material would be post-worthy was the very fact of two puzzles being released back-to-back by the same designer. Although the puzzles could not be more different in terms of design, the timing of their release naturally invites comparison. So let’s begin with UFO. Kevin covered UFO previously, so I apologize (yet again) for any redundancy. As you might expect, my thoughts align pretty well with those of my treasured editor (Ed - treasured? WOW - Blush!).

I think no one will argue that UFO has beautiful aesthetics. It is very nicely symmetrical, except in one aspect, and could not better represent its namesake (there were other options, of course, and I would like to have been in the Hamayama board room during the heated naming debates, dodging the hurled teacups and balled-up graph paper flying between the “UFO” and “Saturn” contingents).  UFO consists of a four-part ball encaged within a two-part discoidal outer shell.  The puzzle is instantly attractive and a joy to fondle. The fact that it is a Vesa Timonen design is also a huge draw for many of us. Mr Timonen has fully 10 Hanayama designs under his belt (I’ve read) and remains one of my very favourite designers. Needless to say, expectations were high for this puzzle.

Cast UFO sighted in Samoa.
Now, UFO was rated by Hanayama at a Level 4 difficulty. This usually bodes well in my book. My top picks from Hanayama are usually in the 3 to 5 range. There is a lot of variability within that range, clearly, and if you’ve learned nothing else from Kevin and my efforts, it is that puzzle difficulty ratings are approximations. Especially so in the Hanayama world. And lest ye forget, difficulty ratings are part and parcel of puzzle marketing. Please don’t be naïve (or cynical) on this count, my friends. But anyway, a Hanayama Level 4 to me almost always means happy puzzling.

Unfortunately, dear reader, this is about where the good times end. I engaged with UFO intensively over a period of a week and a half, including some very lengthy sessions. I think like nearly every other person, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the “first” and most obvious solution path - that which teasingly suggests the two halves will somehow slide apart (Ed - yep, me too). Given the number of possible orientations and alignments of the four internal pieces, there is quite a lot to explore here. At some point, though, doubt creeps in. It was at this point that I went to read what Kevin had to say on the matter. Consulting my editor’s work is a bit of a cheat on my part, and uncharacteristic of me actually (Ed - it's nice to know that at least someone pays attention to my drivel), but the idea of continuing to working for hours and days on a false path was just too much to take. So in light of his review, I stopped working on path one and tried some other things. I found another interesting possibility and worked on that for another very extended period. This turned out to be closely related to the actual solution, but it was never going to happen the way I was doing it.

You won’t see it like this until you’ve done some work.
This went on for a long time. At a certain point in every hard solve, I become irrationally convinced that my puzzle is broken. Against all odds, I have somehow received the one-in-a-million copy with incorrect tolerances. The only remedy for this psychosis is to recall that EVERY Hanayama puzzle was hand-assembled in a Chinese factory. Hence, it WILL come apart. Obviously, I have tattooed this insight onto my forearm, Memento-style. Otherwise, I would have fallen down a very dark hole by now, spending all of my free time writing angry missives to innocent puzzle designers. This observation also makes you realize, if you think about it, that there are a handful of Chinese factory workers who are absolute, unparalleled experts at assembling very complex puzzles like Cast Quartet, etcetera. 

My second gambit didn't pay off, and I may or may not have broken a fingernail in the process. By this point, I had run out of ideas and was reduced to random acts of demi-violence (Ed demi? is that smaller or greater than semi?), the last resort of the nearly-defeated puzzler. Nothing was happening and after significant prying, shaking, and spinning of the internals, I did the unthinkable and went for the solution. This is a very rare thing for me, as my shelf of unsolved puzzles will attest. I still refuse to look up the damnable and grotesque Cast Vortex, several years in and am currently astride an ultra-marathon solving effort with Cast Hourglass (Ed - me too!). My time on Hourglass dwarfs anything I have done on my last dozen puzzles (combined), but I will never, in my lifetime, so much a glance sideways at its solution. 

Cast Eyeball
So what is the difference with UFO? Why did it defeat me where so few others (and zero Hanayamas) have to date? Well, the steamy, doleful tropical environment may have affected my morale, that is true. But ultimately I think I became convinced that my only remaining chance at solving it was dumb luck. I was not going to deduce the mechanism, that was clear. I don’t honestly know how anyone could. Like my esteemed editor before me, I leered into UFO’s most private crevices in search of a clue. I saw what you all saw, and it really didn't mean much to me. The internal pieces were clearly not identical. But converting that into a mental model of the interior? I was at a loss. At the end of the process, having tried the things that the puzzle allows one to do, I felt I had arrived at the uncharted shores of the black box. This is not my preferred style of puzzling (generally - there are notable exceptions). I don’t really know what people are saying when they claim to have “solved” a completely hidden mechanism puzzle. They mean that they have gotten it apart, of course, but... so what? If your concept of puzzling is to shake a puzzle around until your random movement releases the lock, then I have good news for you. It gets much better! Now let me be clear, I don’t necessarily group Vesa’s puzzle into that category. But that is where the puzzle brought me mentally. I think it also had something to do with the disconnect between the Level 4 rating and my Level 6 effort, the use (by design or otherwise) of teaser non-solutions, and just generally everything I know about previous designs by the great Finn. The simple fact is that Cast UFO is perfectly calculated to unwind a man. I believe others have shared this experience. 

Now, good readers, understand that your dutiful foreign correspondent has a very full queue of puzzles to solve, study, and just possibly write about (Ed - I am looking forward to receiving copious articles very shortly! 😈). Some times you have to do what you have to do. That is no excuse, and I am not proud of my actions, but I beg your indulgence this once. You can be sure that I will complete some form of puzzle penance in the near future. Some good deed or other - I’ll think of something.

Having the solution in hand, or in mind as it were, I eventually managed to get the pieces separated. The tolerances, for a cast puzzle, are very tight and it took a significant amount of work to get the first piece out. Everything has to be just so, in the extreme. Even with precise placement, the action can be difficult to induce. Over time this gets easier, as always. (Ed - not for me - this is not one of my favourite Hanayama puzzles of recent times)

Having now seen the internals, I can certainly appreciate the brilliance of the mechanism. This is an ingenious design and I struggle to understand how Vesa can come up with such things. It really is a fascinating object and I’ve enjoyed taking it apart and reassembling a couple of times. But in the final analysis, as you may have gathered, I did not actually enjoy UFO as a puzzle. It is certainly not a Level 4 puzzle, and I think it would be wrongheaded in the extreme to knowingly give it to any youth or non-puzzler as a gift. Unfortunately, many well-meaning parents will buy UFO for their kids, possibly putting many young people off mechanical puzzles altogether. I doubt this was Hanayama’s intention, and it makes me seriously question the intensity and/or quality of their product testing program. There should be no mystery in gauging puzzle difficulty. It's a statistical question, at the base of it, and susceptible to good estimation. All you really need to do is collect data from a random sample of solvers. The impression given by many of Hanayama’s ratings, however, is of a consensus arrived at by a small group of professional puzzlers/designers who are perhaps too close to UFO for the task. I don’t know this to be the case, and my preemptive apologies to the very good people at Hanayama, but I can’t think of any other way to explain UFO’s rating.

Were UFO to be reclassified upward, it would at least be more accurate for the consumer. But I still would not have found it enjoyable. The rating is actually a minor matter. It is the aforementioned limitation of the solving process that is critical. Notice that most Level 6 puzzles, by and large, involve complete transparency. Hiding the mechanics is only one road to difficulty, after all, and in my opinion, makes it much harder to craft a “fair” and fun puzzle.

Cast Slider - unslid
Enter now Cast Slider, the very latest Hanayama release. My experience with slider could not be more different from UFO. Slider, as you surely know by now, boasts only three component pieces. When assembled, the two “sliders” move smoothly past one another until stopped by their respective pins. The movement is really very dramatic and at full extension, the puzzle seems barely articulated, held loosely but securely by the centre piece and its two symmetrical slots. 

The radical dynamic action of the puzzle makes it a real pleasure to manipulate and is in stark contrast to the compact and somewhat inaccessible UFO, which is not unpleasurable itself, just differently so. While the kernel of UFO is securely encaged, and thus problematic, Slider seems like something that should come apart in short order, if not immediately, of its own volition. As an object, it comes off as a little more puzzling, to me anyway. I can see everything, but I still don’t understand it.

Once you try to solve Slider you’ll find that it is no simple matter to disengage the pieces. I think this took me about 30 minutes, off and on, to get apart. Several nearby acquaintances, all of them too smart for their own good, never managed it. For me, it was extremely enjoyable and gratifying. Where UFO brings you to your wits end through sheer intransigence, Slider sets up a reasonable challenge, brings you to the point of consternation, then pays you off handsomely. The fact that Slider is so gangly and capable of several different configurations helps mightily in maintaining a puzzler's interest. UFO, the fixed object, defies exploration, excepting the false path of course, which is only rubbing salt in the wound.  Slider is completely transparent. There is nothing hidden and its mechanics are plain for all to inspect. Yet still, it confounds. UFO, as mentioned, keeps things very close to the vest. You can’t see how its constructed, which means you don’t know how to get in to see how its constructed, which means... 

Cast Slider, practising contortionist.
Among all its other good qualities, Slider presents you with both a take-apart and a put-together challenge. It is almost assured that you will struggle to get it back together, at least at first. Reassembly is not trivial in the least. I think if one were handed this as a pure put-together, it would be very tough, probably more so than as a take-apart. Replay value is also initially quite high. My second-time solve still took a fair effort. The third was faster, and so on. UFO, once the secrets of the ingenious mechanism are revealed, is no longer puzzling to disassemble or reassemble. Fiddly as hell, yes, but not really puzzling.  

Finally, Slider has the advantage of being a good social puzzle. It is fun to pass around, catches peoples interest, and can be solved within the period of an average social gathering. Fun for all ages! UFO, don’t even try it. I’m guessing it would be a real party killer. That’s not a ding against UFO; there are countless outstanding puzzles that shouldn't be foisted on non-puzzling friends. It's just an observation for the record and a word to the wise.

Cast Slider dismantled.
If you are somehow unsure where I stand by now, let me sum up. I found Slider to be thoroughly enjoyable on all levels. It is an essentially flawless design and among the best I have seen recently. As far as I can tell, it is completely unique and original in the extreme. I have not come across anything like it in my travels. That really says something. Over the years we’ve come to expect this level of originality from Vesa Timonen to the extent that perhaps we even take it for granted. But it is not at all easy to be truly original in puzzle design, especially in the few-piece take apart category. There are many good designers out there, professional and amateur alike, but Vesa is a “great” designer in my book. History will decide, I suppose, but I’ve already made up my mind. 

UFO, despite the aspects that I personally find flawed, is also a supremely original design and a fascinating object to study, if not solve. It is yet another testament to Vesa’s abilities, by comparison, to which, no one would argue, the PuzzleMad staff are double-dyed dolts. (Ed - "double-dyed dolts??? Not sure what that means but it sounds like a good description of me!)

To wrap up, what we have from Hanayama and Vesa Timonen is a study in contrasts. UFO and Slider are painfully dissimilar in almost every respect. The only place they approach one another is in apparent difficulty rating, being just a single increment apart. Again, that should tell you something about the value of difficulty ratings. Even when accurate, they are often just an ordinal proxy measure for “solving time required.” More important attributes like cleverness, ingenuity, personal enjoyment, replay value, sociability, etc., will remain unknown. But perhaps that’s for the best. Those are the things we discover during our work.

Finally, let me conclude further with a quick note on Cast Hourglass. I know this puzzle has caused a good deal of suffering out there, but for those of you still in the throes of solving, I strongly encourage you to keep at it and push through the pain. The puzzle is extremely difficult, no doubt, but it is also supremely rational and therefore within your grasp. Disassembly is a huge challenge and reassembly doubly so. But there is nothing hidden, so there is also no excuse. A little old-fashioned THINKing will serve you well, whereas tinkering around aimlessly will get you nowhere. I am not yet home on reassembly but am so close I can taste it. Tremendous thought and persistence need on this one, but rewards to match. Good luck. (Ed - I am hopelessly lost!)

Ok Kevin, get us out of here so we can enjoy the rest of the weekend...

Wow! What a great article! I really must get hold of a copy of the slider - I had a quick fiddle at the MPP and that (along with your article) made me very determined to buy a copy for my own use. Thank you so much, Mike, you always seem to bail me out at just the right time! Good luck with the Hourglass and I look forward to your maths-based article soon!

One side-effect of a visit to the MPP where I foolishly agreed to bring along my Happiness cubes again for the guys to enjoy was that at the end of the day the puzzling swines left me with a bag of UNhappiness! They had dismantled all 5 cubes and left them mixed in a pile and the bunch of packing puzzles from Tom Lensch, Pelikan, Brian Menold and Johan Heyns had all their pieces hidden amongst each other. Aaargh!!!

Nooooooooo! Not again!